East-west extensional basins are distributed across the southern half of the Tibetan plateau at an elevation of ∼4 km. These basins have generated much interest because of their potential implications for the regional tectonics and force distribution in the plateau. This study documents the sedimentology of the Miocene–Pliocene Thakkhola graben fill in order to reconstruct basin evolution and paleoenvironment. Analysis of depositional systems, paleodrainage patterns, and conglomerate clast provenance of the >1-km-thick graben fill sets limits on the timing of activity of the basin-bounding faults and the development of southward axial drainage in the basin. During the deposition of the oldest basin fill (Tetang Formation, ca. 11–9.6 Ma), probably in a restricted basin, minor motion occurred on the basin-bounding fault systems. An angular unconformity separates the Tetang and overlying Thakkhola Formations, where this contact can be observed in the southern part of the basin. Southward axial drainage was established by ca. 7 Ma with the onset of deposition of the Thakkhola Formation. Several episodes of damming of this drainage system are recorded by widespread lacustrine deposits in the southern part of the basin. Facies distribution and the progressive rotation of strata in the Thakkhola Formation indicate that the Dangardzong fault on the western edge of the basin was active at this time, and drainage ponding may have been related to displacement on normal faults associated with the South Tibetan detachment system to the south of Thakkhola graben.
Contrasts between deposits of the Tetang and Thakkhola Formations provide evidence for environmental change in the basin. In the Tetang Formation, the abundance of lacustrine facies, the pollen record, and the absence of paleosol carbonate suggest that conditions were more humid than during subsequent deposition of the Thakkhola Formation. Environmental change in the Thakkhola graben coincided with environmental change observed in the Siwalik foreland basin sequence, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal at ca. 8–7 Ma. Although this climate change event has been previously attributed to intensification of the Asian monsoon in response to uplift of the Tibetan plateau, paleoaltimetry data indicate that this region had already attained a high elevation by ca. 11 Ma. Thus, the Thakkhola graben stratigraphic record suggests that uplift of the southern Tibetan plateau and the onset of the Asian monsoon as inferred from paleoclimatic indicators were not directly related in a simple way.